It was bound to happen sooner or later, but the Manitoba government may have poked a hornet’s nest with its proposal to make membership in a general farm policy group mandatory.
If the current proposal comes to pass, farmers would register their operations and be required to directly support a general farm operation sanctioned by the province or contribute a similar amount annually towards research. There are similar systems in three other provinces. Ontario farmers, for example, can choose between three general lobby groups.
Already some of the commodity groups are lining up against the idea, fearing that a mandatory checkoff will cause farmers to pull out of their voluntary ones.
It’s hard to say which element of this idea will generate the most response; the notion that farmers will have to register their operations with the province or that they’ll be forced to fork out an annual membership fee. It’s not clear whether there will be crossover between registration for the purpose of funding farm organizations and the evolving movement in food safety and traceability regulations. Some are already asking – will the next step be requiring farmers to be licensed?
That day may come. In fact, it is hard to see how it won’t. But it should not be used to cloud the main issue up for debate – do farmers need a strong, unified lobby?
This development is undoubtedly good news for Keystone Agricultural Producers, which has spent 25 years lobbying on behalf of the estimated 12,000 commercial farmers in Manitoba while being financed and guided by fewer than half that number.
It can’t be because of the cost of membership fees. One has only to add up the benefits that accrued to the farming community from the Net Income Stabilization Fund, which was a brainchild of KAP members, and there’d be enough to pay for a lifetime of annual memberships. That’s just one of the many programs KAP members have had a hand in guiding – programs that either put real money in farmers’ pockets or save them money through friendlier regulation.
KAP certainly has its detractors. And while farmers who choose not to belong are entitled to their views, we haven’t heard any reports of non-members sending back subsidy cheques KAP fought to get on their behalf.
Some of those non-KAP farmers may have opted to support the National Farmers Union, another valuable farm voice which doesn’t currently have status as a provincial group in Manitoba. It might seek it if there is a funding mechanism that allows more than one general farm group to be sanctioned.
But it would appear that at least half of the farmers in this province have been content to let someone else take care of business. The “free rider syndrome” is well known. These are the folks who complain about how poorly democracy works, but never show up to vote unless something gets them really riled up. As often as not, they are motivated to vote against something rather than for something they support.
Or they have determined their interests can be better served through a commodity-specific organization; they feel their views and their issues become too watered down when coming through a general farm policy group.
Commodity groups have their role furthering development of their commodities through research and market development. But their evolution has led many in the farming community to believe that their issues are unique. They have splintered and weakened the farm voice.
It doesn’t much matter whether you produce hogs, cattle, grains or potatoes, it is important that you have a fair and consistent business environment with the ability to manage market and climate risk.
A farm organization’s dependence on the voluntary commitment of farmers is double edged. On one hand, it has forced it to remain responsive to its members’ needs. On the other hand, voluntary membership has caused it to tread lightly, arguably too lightly at times, for fear that individuals or groups will pull out in protest.
Stable funding would allow this organization, and any others that obtain provincial standing, to plan ahead, increase research and analysis capacity and provide more services to members.
Mandatory checkoffs aren’t without risk, as noted in the Alan Guebert column at the right. There are cases on the Canadian scene in which farmers’ checkoff money has been used to support policies that will result in fewer farmers – all in the name of a more profitable industry. It is important that general farm organizations do their utmost to keep farmers on the land and make money too.
Farmers need a voice. They also need a forum through which they can learn from each other, gain perspective on conflicting interests, and pursue common goals.
Is moving to mandatory membership risky? Absolutely. But after 20 years of trying the voluntary route, it’s time to explore another approach. [email protected]